World arms expenditure totalled $1.464 trillion last year, a rise of 45 percent from a decade ago and representing 2.4 percent of global gross domestic product or $217 for every person on the planet, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said.
Compared with 2007, the figure rose by 4 percent in real terms.
"The introduction of the idea of 'the war on terrorism' has encouraged several countries to see their problems from a very militarised perspective, and is used to justify high military spending," Sam Perlo-Freeman, the main author of SIPRI's report on military expenditure, said in a statement.
"At the same time, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost an extra $903 billion in increased military spending for the United States alone," he said.
The United States is, as expected, by far the world's biggest arms spender, according to the think tank.
It represented almost 42 percent of the 2008 total, more than the 14 other top countries combined in what SIPRI described as a legacy from former president George W. Bush.
Since 1999, US defence spending has soared by 67 percent in real terms to $607 billion last year.
China, which like Russia has almost tripled its military expenditure in the past 10 years, was for the first time the world's second-biggest arms spender in 2008.
SIPRI estimated its spending at $84.9 billion, which accounted for six percent of the global total.
That would put it ahead of France and Britain, which each accounted for 4.5 percent.
"China's increase has roughly paralleled its economic growth and is also linked to its major power aspirations," SIPRI said.
Russia, like China, took advantage of the recent years' economic boom prior to the global crisis to reassert its superpower ambitions, returning to fifth position on SIPRI's list in 2008 after a decline in the post-Cold War period.
Meanwhile, military spending in South America soared by 50 percent in 2008 over the previous decade, "led by Brazil's long-term push for regional power status and Colombia's escalating spending related to its internal conflict," the think tank wrote.
Among the top 15 biggest spenders, only Germany and Japan have decreased their arms spending since 1999, with drops of 11 percent and 1.7 percent respectively last year.
At the other end of the line, the 100 biggest weapons manufacturers registered total sales of $347 billion in 2007, an increase of five percent in real terms from 2006, according to the most recent statistics compiled by SIPRI and presented in its annual yearbook.
That list is topped by US company Boeing, ahead of Britain's BAE Systems and US group Lockheed Martin.
Western companies dominate the ranking, with 44 of them from the US and 32 from Western Europe.
SIPRI said the companies that registered the sharpest increases were manufacturers of armoured tanks, in strong demand in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as companies that subcontract their services to militaries.
*: Sipri estimate